There’s an art to writing for kids. Good children’s books aren’t simply dumbed down stories, written with smaller words and fitted with happy sappy endings. In reality, kids are quite discerning: Their faculties haven’t yet been dulled by the insecurities and neuroses accumulated during the process of growing up. They like what they like and are completely honest about it. It’s true that they happily consume works filled with tired clichés and moralistic messages, but lacking cynicism and regard for convention, they generally emerge none the worse for wear.
The stories that stay with kids are ones that feel authentic and true, even if they can’t articulate why. These are stories that speak through the language of wonder, a native tongue we are all born knowing but can easily be forgotten through neglect and disuse.
I think The Curious Garden by Peter Brown is a great children’s book. Inspired by the revitalization of the Highline railway on the west side of Manhattan, Brown fuses charming visuals with a narrative that is full of discovery and hope. The messages found within its pages are subtle, always secondary to the atmosphere of playfulness and wonder. It is an excellent read for both kids and adults, and makes for an inspiring little Ekostory that speaks of the importance of play in forging a healthy relationship with the living world.
The Curious Garden revolves around a redheaded boy named Liam who loves to spend his time outside. One day while wandering in the grey city that is his home, he comes across a patch of vegetation along an abandoned railway that is struggling to survive. Despite having little experience caring for living things, Liam decides to do what he can to help the plants grow. He returns with water and shears and song, and over time nurtures the patch into a healthy and vibrant garden.
Winter interrupts Liam’s time outdoors, but he takes the opportunity to improve his knowledge in order to become a better gardener. In the following spring, Liam continues to help the expanding garden explore the city as it grows to inhabit old places and forgotten things. Soon other gardens and gardeners emerge throughout the city, blanketing buildings and streets with flowers and greenery. People begin to incorporate the living world into different parts of their lives, and over time the town, once grey and drab, is utterly transformed. Many years later, Liam, now with his own family, is depicted tending still to that first patch of garden that started the revolution.
An Artistic Landscape
The story of The Curious Garden is not only told through words, but also thoughtful art that is capable of standing as a narrative on its own. For me, Brown’s cheerful protagonist and the vibrancy of his landscapes stole the show. My favourite section of the book is a wordless two page spread situated in the heart of the book: Liam stares out at a view of factories and smokestacks, the encroaching greenery and flowers trailing behind him. I cannot see his face; all feels still. Liam seems to be standing on the cusp of a great change, taking in and acknowledging the past before the landscape before him is transformed by the inexorable force of renewal he marshals – before all is changed.
This is my personal interpretation – I tend to go overboard sometimes with these things. To someone else, it could simply be a pretty and quiet little scene. Nevertheless, I believe Brown’s illustrations do an excellent job in engaging both children and adults in the city’s progression from a grey and drab landscape to a vibrant and organic metropolis.
The Power of Play
Unlike many children growing up in the current generation, Liam is allowed to spend time outdoors by himself. He makes the best of this precious gift of freedom, exploring his urban environment and discovering amongst it, solitary patches of life.
In his essay in Orion Magazine titled The Politics of Play: Seeking Adventure in a Risk-averse Society, Jay Griffiths writes of the importance of “one particular form of play: unscheduled, timeless, unstructured play in make-believe worlds.” Liam’s unscheduled and unstructured excursions afford him the opportunity to forge a balanced and meaningful relationship with the living world. He is not hampered by the expectations and conventions of others and is not afraid of making mistakes. No external validation is given nor required. Gardening by himself helps him develop skills of deep observation and thoughtful engagement; he learns what works and what does not by seeing and doing, finding his way through trial and error. As a result, his desire to learn and engage is pure, springing forth from personal lived experience. Through unstructured play, Liam is cultivating the skills necessary for inner sustainability, self-reliance, and confidence to navigate through the challenges of life.
A Curious and Rambunctious Garden
“It often seems impossible for nature to thrive in a city of concrete and brick and steel. But the more I’ve traveled, and the closer I’ve loved at the world around me, the more I’ve realized that nature is always eagerly exploring the places we’ve forgotten. You can find flowers and fields and even small forests growing wild in every city; you just have to look for them.”
– Peter Brown, Epilogue
The Curious Garden speaks of the healthy and balanced mingling between culture and nature; Liam and the Garden engage in a reciprocal relationship within a non-traditional environment, acknowledging boundaries while shaping each other to create something that is ultimately beneficial to the world they live in.
I enjoyed the depiction of the garden as an entity with its own agency; the limited amount of anthropomorphization Brown utilizes in the narrative works well to connect the reader to empathize with a non-human and non-animal living system. To Liam, this interpretation is quite natural. The garden is not merely an assemblage of different species; it is a whole living thing just like himself. Because he regards the garden this way, Liam does not distinguish between the weeds and the mosses and the flowers; he simply sees some as tough bits and others as delicate bits. He admires the garden’s tenacity, vibrancy, and beauty without distinguishing between what is bad and what is good, what is a weed and what is not. He identifies deeply with the garden’s irrepressibility and curiosity, admiring how it can surface in the most unlikely of places and how it can integrate and beautify without destroying the character of the surroundings.
A key idea in the story that resonated with me is the notion of leading without intent. Liam’s efforts at gardening unwittingly inspire others in the city to take notice and engage with the living world. But Liam himself does not do it for any ultimate purpose; he gardens simply to express his appreciation for living things. The sea change came about around him when he was simply doing what he loved to do.
This form of non-directed and diffuse leadership does not employ direct force or manipulative forms of persuasion; it achieves its objectives through subtler means. It gets things done in such a way that offers a sense of personal agency to the people, allowing them to find their own way to engage with living things. Many, like Liam, took up gardening. Some sat at parks and enjoyed the scenery. Still others played in ponds, pruned plants, painted portraits. Inspired by Liam, each discovered their own connection to the living world and in turn helped shape the vision for a greener and more vibrant future.
Change Small and Slow
Messages of change, when imposed and proscribed too forcefully, can engender significant resistance and resentment. In The Curious Garden, change started small and occurred at the pace of the garden. They began with individual acts of kindness, gifts of plants left on doorsteps, and secret exercises of guerrilla gardening. Over time, these actions strengthen ties to community and to nature, causing a sea change in culture and convention.
Like last week’s Rambunctious Garden, what I liked about the ideas in The Curious Garden are that they speak to a path beyond the notion of sustainability. To sustain implicitly implies a notion of maintaining the status quo, of doing no harm if not much good. The actions undertaken in The Curious Garden are regenerative, restoring not only what was lost, but transforming the world into a better and healthier place. Like Rambunctious Garden, Brown’s story seems to suggest that we shouldn’t merely seek to minimize our impacts on the world, but also to consider that we have the ability to create positive change. I believe that this hopeful message is worthy of imparting to the younger generation.
Next Up: Certain cute robots finally make their debut.
Brown, Peter. The Curious Garden. Hachette Book Group: New York, 2009.
Images from The Curious Garden © 2009 Peter Brown. All rights reserved.
As you say, there is an art to writing for children. Kids are curious and easily recognize when someone is being phony or condescending. They want to be informed and entertained. This book seems to be a delightful combination of the two. While reading your review and admiring the illustrations, I couldn’t help thinking of Jo MacDonald Had a Garden by Mary Quattlebaum; illustrated by Laura J. Bryant.
Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out. (I like the title very much!)
A wonderfully structured and observed piece on a truly beautiful and meaningful book, Isaac. I enjoyed reading your take on this book a great deal. My youngest son and I discovered this book together more than a year ago and have read it countless times; he was truly enamoured with it upon first reading, so I can attest to its resonance with children.
Thank you for your kind comments. It’s nice to hear that the story was enjoyable and memorable for you and your son. I actually came across it quite recently and was quite taken by the entire package.
Such a simple story, basically, yet with such a powerful message, with several powerful messages in fact! I hadn’t heard of this book before, but I’ll certainly look for it, thank you!
Good children’s books also make excellent adults’ books… It’s a shame for adulthood that at some point while growing up, most people loose the sense of watching, the will of learning, the delight of ”simple” things – people loose the sense of what’s authentic and true, which is also a way of loosing the capacity to love and to enjoy (and to respect) Life.
That sense you speak of does somehow get drained out of us by the realities of growing up, doesn’t it? For the lucky ones, it returns with having kids of their own, or in old age.
I am sorry for the way I’ve expressed it (sometimes I just can’t find the right words in English), please excuse me.
I didn’t exactly mean that it is a shame; I really meant that it is sad and that – may be? – there is something we can do about it.